UN puts evacuations from embattled Syrian city on hold while government screens detainees

The Associated Press

FILE - In this Monday Feb. 10, 2014 file photo, released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, a Syrian Arab Red Crescent member carries a baby to a bus to evacuate from the battleground city of Homs, Syria. Weeping children begged for food in the streets and women picked grass growing in the cracks of the sidewalks to eat as hunger gripped residents of rebel-held neighborhoods of the Syrian city of Homs blockaded for nearly two years by the military, according to a rare first-hand account by a man evacuated during a truce this week. (AP Photo/SANA, File)

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By DIAA HADID, Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) — The United Nations temporarily suspended the evacuation of civilians from the embattled Syrian city of Homs on Friday, a senior U.N. official said, while the government screened military age males who left the area.

Meanwhile near Lebanon, Syrian forces and rebels clashed over the strategic town of Yabroud, causing hundreds of people to flee over the border.

The halt in evacuations came just a day after a cease-fire was extended for three more days. Hundreds more civilians are believed to still be trapped in a rebel-held medieval quarter known as Old Homs.

Senior Syria U.N. official Matthew Hollingworth told The Associated Press by telephone from Damascus that dozens of men and boys aged 15 to 55, who left Old Homs during earlier evacuations, are still being held and questioned by Syrian authorities.

"The agreement has been we will now concentrate on the process of completing the regularization of status of the men from 15 to 55," Hollingworth said. "Only when that's done, will we look at another evacuation." Later in the day however he said the U.N was not linking the next evacuation to the release of the men being processed by Syrian authorities.

The Syrian government considers males of military age to be potential combatants who must obtain security clearance before being released. Those authorities suspect of being rebels will likely be detained.

Hollingworth said several dozen men were being held in a school in Homs and that U.N. officials are also present there.

They were part of 1,400 people evacuated by the U.N. and the Syrian Red Crescent from opposition-held areas of Homs over the past week as a fragile truce between took hold between forces loyal to President Bashar Assad and armed rebels seeking his overthrow.

In all, over 400 men from Homs have handed themselves over to Syrian forces, and around 200 have already been released. An AP tally shows that around another 220 are still being held.

The detentions have caused widespread concern among Syrian activists who say Assad's security forces have tortured and killed opposition detainees. International rights groups have made similar complaints.

Hollingworth said men seeking evacuation understand they will have to be present themselves to Syrian security forces.

Also Friday, Syrian troops and rebels clashed around the rugged hills surrounding the town of Yabroud — the last rebel stronghold in Syria's mountainous Qalamoun region. Syrian aircraft fired shells toward farmlands close to the town and clashes broke out in the nearby town of al-Sahel, said local activist Nader al-Husseini.

Plumes of smoke rose from the hills near Yabroud on footage broadcast by the Lebanon-based television station al-Mayadeen. The station's correspondent said Syrian forces had seized the Marsad hill overlooking the town in a new blow to rebels.

A Syrian officer in the area told the station that government forces also seized control of smuggling routes used to supply rebels from neighboring Lebanese towns dominated by Sunni Muslims, who have generally supported the uprising against Assad.

Backed by Lebanon's Hezbollah fighters, the Syrian army has been on a crushing offensive in the region since early December, trying to severe a main thoroughfare for rebels from Lebanon.

At least 500 families fled the area, crossing into the neighboring Lebanese town of Arsal, said U.N. official Dana Sleiman.

In the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, rebels blew up part of the once-luxurious Carlton Hotel, where soldiers were stationed, by tunneling underneath the sprawling building and planting explosives, said Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Abdurrahman said five soldiers were killed, while government news agency SANA said soldiers repelled an attack at the hotel but gave no other details.

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With additional reporting by Bassem Mroue from Beirut.

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